BELFAST, Maine — It was business as usual Thursday in the dimly-lit canteen at the Randall-Collins Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3108 in Belfast, with old friends trading jokes and stories as they played cards.
Meanwhile, downstairs in the dilapidated structure on Field Street, Jim Roberts, the operations manager at the post, wrestled with a new dilemma: a pipe in the women’s restroom had frozen and burst overnight, filling every available receptacle and flooding the floor with grimy water.
The post — and its plumbing — has seen better days. And Roberts, a Navy veteran, is working to fix not just the plumbing but also the endless infrastructure problems there by raising funds to tear down the old post and build a new handicapped accessible, single story building on the same lot.
It’s a tall order — the group is aiming to raise more than $350,000 — but they’ve made a good start. So far, through grants, donations and an online fundraising site, VFW members have raised $125,000 towards their goal.
“When the wind blows, you can actually feel the building sway. The building is literally sinking. It’s folding and bending,” Roberts said. “In order for us to be able to continue our mission, we need a new building.”
He estimates their current home to be more than 110 years old. The two-story, 5,000 square-foot building used to be a baby clothes manufacturing facility, and although it recently passed health, fire and safety code inspections, it’s no secret that it’s in rough shape.
It has no foundation and the wooden beams it was built on are rotting away. That’s why the structure is sinking and shifting, and why the new roof that was put on 18 months ago has already started to leak. On a tour of the post, Roberts points out windows that won’t close, ceiling tiles move when the wind blows and more, saying that it is just beyond repair.
“It’s hard to throw more oats at a dead horse — it will still be dead,” he said.
But he has great hopes that the post will be able to raise the money it needs to construct a new home. It has received a $10,000 grant from the Stephen and Tabitha King Foundation — great news, Roberts said, especially considering that because the post serves alcohol and sells lottery tickets, it doesn’t qualify for many grants. It also on Thursday received a check for $2,500 from the Faith Temple Church of God and has gotten donations of hundreds of dollars from local businesses, along with smaller checks for $25 and $50.
“I feel like this community is really supportive of our efforts,” Roberts said.
He is one of about 146 members — and one of the fewer than 20 active members — of the VFW post in Belfast. The nonprofit veterans service organization that dates back to 1899, when veterans of the Spanish-American War and the Philippine Insurrection came back home to the United States and founded local organizations to secure rights and benefits for their service.
The VFW aims to foster camaraderie among veterans of overseas conflicts, and serve veterans, the military and the community. At the Randall-Collins Post, that mission is carried out in lots of ways. The building hosts the No Greater Love Food Pantry, which now serves between 80 and 100 families twice a month, and the Waldo County Pet Food Pantry, which helps about 80 families a month.
Members of the VFW Auxiliary deliver microwaveable meals to older veterans in the community twice a week, in a partnership with the Belfast Soup Kitchen. At Christmas, VFW members made sure that 70 local children had plenty of presents and a festive holiday. They also have helped veterans pay their rent and their electric bills. One man was three months behind on his phone bill, and they paid for that, too. And two years ago, when the partial government shutdown left Coast Guard members without a paycheck, the post provided seven local Coast Guard families with food, gas cards and help paying for heating oil and phone bills.
In addition to operating as a kind of de facto general assistance for veterans and others, the post awards scholarships to high school and middle school students and puts American flags up around the city of Belfast for Memorial Day and other holidays.
Joy Asuncion of Belfast, a Navy veteran who is a member of the VFW, said that taking care of the post is the right thing to do.
“I think everybody in the community should support this post,” she said. “They’re so active in supporting veterans. My thought is, they fought for us — and we need to fight for them.”
To help the post reach its goal, donations can be sent to the Randall-Collins VFW Post Building Fund, 34 Field St., Belfast, ME 04915.